Natural Philosophy—ask why, not just how!

I’m not sure you all are as interested in philosophy as I am but I thought I might devote a post each to the three types of philosophy discussed in The Liberal Arts Tradition. Just as a reminder, they are natural philosophy (knowledge of the universe), moral philosophy (knowledge of man), and divine philosophy (knowledge of God). First up for discussion is natural philosophy because for children, this is the first realm of philosophy that they really interact with. The natural world is knowable, but at the same time, full of mysteries and delights.

There is a modern way of dealing with natural philosophy, and there is the more traditional “classical” way. The modern way presumes that the world is something to be manipulated, tamed, for the benefit of anyone able to do so. There was a time when that seemed bright and attractive to thinkers like Francis Bacon, who really stands at the headwaters of this modern trend. Clark and Jain quote him as saying:

“by the art and hand of man she [natural science] is forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded.”

It makes me think of things like cuts and bridges that level the terrain for roads, or covering up acres of earth with concrete so that we can build towering cities, as well as modern research into genetic modification, first of plants and foods, but also with the possibility of creating creatures—or people—according to our own design. We’ve taken Bacon’s idea to the point that there is actually a backlash—a horror at our lack of care for the environment and even our health. But the research and experimentation goes on just the same, mostly driven by a desire for power (and sometimes profit) rather than by a desire for wisdom.

That can all be contrasted with the classical, traditional approach to natural philosophy which supposed that man was merely imitating nature somewhat imperfectly. The Romans built aqueducts, which did what rivers do. People built boats, but they were less efficient than fish or waterfowl at “swimming.” Orville and Wilbur Wright watched the birds for hours, seeking hints at how they might design a flying machine.

You might remember that wonder is extremely important in the classical tradition. I can’t really articulate in a blog post all that the authors say about the way natural philosophy is built upon piety and that musical, poetical approach to knowledge that come earlier in the educational model. I encourage you to read the book.

Natural philosophy values poetic insight, intuition, and imagination in addition to rational demonstration. This approach interweaves the objective and subjective into a transcendental unity. It also acknowledges that our understanding of an object, while true, never exhausts the intelligibility of the object.

This sense of wonder, and our inability to know everything there is to know is part of the humility that that is central to the classical tradition. I love the way this is underscored in this discussion particularly, because science is one of those areas where it is most difficult to retain humility and wonder. This comes when we look beyond asking “how” things work and ask “why?” And because we can never, never know the entire answer to “why,” we keep that humility. But modern science doesn’t ask “why” (usually)—only “how?”—and by restoring the “why” question to our pursuit of science, we restore a classical pursuit.

Thus to know Newton’s universal law of gravitation means to know why it must be so according to the proper assumptions, observations, and reasoning and why gravitation cannot be something different. It is not merely knowing how to calculate answers to problems through use of it.

There is so much more in the book about this. My thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg and constrained by time. But the classical perspective on natural philosophy, which becomes “science” in the contemporary curriculum is really vital, and reading this book is a great way to begin thinking about how you want science to work in a total curriculum. I know this chapter made me happy that all my students underpin their science education by spending a year or two with Madame How and Lady Why.

On this topic, I particularly want to refer you to Brandy’s post at Afterthoughts, because she really focuses on the implementation of this approach to science, and also (bless her!) links the author’s ideas to the methods used by Charlotte Mason, which are—not surprisingly now!—almost exactly in line with the suggestions in The Liberal Arts Tradition.

Their approach to natural philosophy encourages us to ask more from science than merely the power to manipulate the universe in some way, and restores a unity to scientific studies.

A return to the tradition offers more, not less, than positivistic modern science. Thus recovering natural philosophy overcomes the faith versus science antagonism, the qualitative versus quantitative dualism, and the problems of fragmented specialization.

That’s a lot to ask for, but every effort to restore wonder to the pursuit of science is so much gained for our children.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.

2 thoughts on “Natural Philosophy—ask why, not just how!

  1. I’m itching for my copy to arrive now… and to read MHLW. That might move to be holiday reading. I just love the AO science books.

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